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December 10, 2013

Mandela's Memorial, Politics, and Sensationalism

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Although I have felt somewhat removed from the grief and mourning surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela, I am left curiously empty today after covering the memorial.

Tens of thousands of people gathered at stadiums across Gauteng, and in select venues across the country, to watch together the memorial from their television screens as it was broadcast from FNB Stadium near Soweto.

South Africans of all creeds left their jobs for the day, and the celebration that came out of the event – that came from an event where everyone was expected to be in tears and mourning – shocked everyone, the world, and even me.

But I wonder how much money was spent in this charade? Would Mandela have wanted such pomp, such amazing amounts of money spent on a memorial that lasts only a few hours, or would he have wanted our government to put children starving in families who couldn’t afford to attend memorials in his name first.

And of course, there was no escaping from the politics of the situation. Over 100 dignitaries and world leaders made their way to the main event, and it was all dripping with politics, like a hot knife dipped in honey. Many people celebrated their South African-ness – their belonging to the rainbow nation that Madiba gave his life to create – but many arrived in the colours of the party they supported: the ANC, the EFF, and possibly many others. And this political sentiment was echoed by a small contingent of people who decided to make their voices heard on this day, which should have been a day of reflection on how far the walk is still for us as South Africans.

The booing of President Jacob Zuma was unnerving – this is the man who had the support of masses of people during his rape trial – are we all so fickle that from one minute to the next we can support the man of some random powerful, charming, and influential person’s choosing?

And the genuine joy the crowd expressed for US President Barack Obama when he took to the stage to express his condolences and tell the world what Mandela meant to and for him made me but shake my head. His speech was magnanimous – it was inspired – it was poetic and artistic – but I cannot escape from the feeling that his speech, and everyone else’s was politicking. Even if only subconsciously. The speeches and tributes with their repetition of how loved Mandela is all over the world, how his message of love and forgiveness is inspiring, all overshadow the harsh realities of the heads of states’ own countries: America’s families are reeling from the loss of their young men, killed in the Middle Eastern fields in a war that makes no sense; China’s population hardly experiences a day of clear sunshine and air; India’s women are under constant threat… Certainly, every country has its problems, but the mere rush to sate the need to attend the memorial, to show face, reeks of politics. At least the Czech prime minister was honest.

Everyone gasped mentally when Obama shook the hand of CubanPresident Fidel Castro – what an amazing man, to forego decades of disagreement and infighting to shake the hand of one’s country’s enemy! It’s all about politics. It’s all about the give and take of politics. Now Castro will have to make some sentiment of his own, and each person will try to one-up the other, and warming relations will be swept away by the undercurrent of resentment because of the lack of honesty.

The media’s coverage of the situation is almost compulsively obsessive. Every detail is painstakingly reported as though everything is fraught with meaning. Barack Obama’s speech was available within seconds of him finishing his reading, and news sites published it as fast as they could. Were they the first to have it up? What are the page views like? Perhaps this is a reflection of our now-culture, but is this what the media has become? A means to follow the crowd; to enjoy what the masses enjoy; to express only popular opinion; to ‘like’ only what is ‘liked?

Is this what the media has become? A means to sensationalise every happenstance; to allow dozens of journalists to be posted outside the house of an ailing old man – yes, an amazing icon, but still, an old man, certainly tired of the fickleness of this world - waiting for him to die so they can be the first to report it; a means to indulge in the horrid pornography of grief; to rub the wound with salt; to indulge in the sadness of billions of people, all for the sake of a page view and an advertising campaign?

I take as comfort the fact of the South African reaction to remembering Nelson Mandela – a reaction that had its tears, its clutching and wringing of hands, and its tributes, but also a reaction that was filled with joy and gratitude for being given the gift of knowing Mandela, for living on the same piece of continent that Mandela lived on, for being able to share once again their revered hero with the world.

It is this reaction that cannot be sensationalised – it is pure honesty, and South Africa will no longer be sensationalised.

{Image Credit: By Pvt pauline (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

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